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Down Under in the Blue Mountains

Wanting to get out of Sydney to see more of the countryside of New South Wales, we researched our options for day trips. After flirting with the idea of a wine tour to the Hunter Valley, we decided instead on a trip to the Blue Mountains. We booked a small group guided tour with Anderson’s Tours for $160 per person. Although it seemed somewhat expensive, the 11-hour tour included several stops in the Blue Mountains, Scenic World, a guided walk, Featherdale Wildlife Park, a river cruise, lunch, and all entrance fees.

Our guide, Kunal, picked us up at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel at 7:20 a.m. on Day 4 of our trip down under.

Ours was the last pickup point and seats were nearly full so Jim sat in the front with Kunal, beginning a thoroughly enjoyable ride. As he drove us through the countryside, Kunal shared his considerable knowledge about Australia, New South Wales, and the Blue Mountains with us.

The Blue Mountains received their name eponymously from the blue haze of the eucalyptus forests covering the mountains. The blue haze is caused by a phenomenon called Rayleigh Scattering, a molecular scattering of light. Incidentally, this Rayleigh Scattering also causes the sky to look blue.

After driving through Glenbrook and Katoomba, we stopped first at Scenic World. A privately owned tourist attraction, it offers several worthwhile experiences. As we entered, we were told to take the Scenic Skyway and meet our group on the other side before boarding the Scenic Railway. The Scenic Skyway, the largest aerial cablecar in the southern hemisphere, with 360-degree windows and a glass floor, provided some amazing views.

View from Scenic Skyway

As is sometimes the case, several of our tour group didn’t listen to the instructions and couldn’t be found at the meeting point so we wasted about 45 minutes waiting for them. This is why I’ve come to appreciate private tours whenever they are cost-effective.

Advertised as the steepest passenger railway in the world, the Scenic Railway with its 128% incline descends 310 meters (1017 ft.) to the floor of the Jamison Valley. Originally built to transport coal and miners, the incline railway began carrying tourists on weekends and holidays to supplement their income. When the coal mine closed, Harry Hammon and his sister bought the lease in 1945 and developed Scenic Railway as the centerpiece of Scenic World.

When we reached the bottom, we enjoyed the Scenic Walkway through several coal mining exhibits and an environmentally responsible 2.4 km trail through the Jurassic rainforest.

Sculpture of a coal miner and his pit pony
Scenic Walkway

The thick vines in the photo below supply water and nutrients to the foliage high above in the canopy.

Five Leaf Water Vines

Following our leisurely stroll through the rainforest, we boarded the Scenic Cableway for our return to the top of the cliff while enjoying more spectacular views of the Three Sisters, a rock formation created by erosion.

Three Sisters, Blue Mountains
One last photo at Scenic World

We stopped at several more lookouts with relatively short trails leading to them. Even in the mountains, the day was oppressively hot so we were grateful not to hike too far.

Cahills Lookout
Jim on the right in the red hat at Elysian Rock

Following a tasty lunch at the elegant Alexandra Hotel in Leura, we had a little free time to explore the town before continuing on to several more lookouts in the Blue Mountains.

Lunch at the Alexandra Hotel

The view from Sublime Point lived up to its name.

Featherdale Wildlife Park was like most zoos—a somewhat sad place to see wild animals in captivity. Because of the heat, we departed from the air-con in the van somewhat apathetically to visit the animals.

I was eager, however, to see native Australian wildlife and especially keen to see koalas up close. Koalas are nocturnal and sleep 18-20 hours a day and none of them were awake but it was fun, nonetheless. You can hold koalas only in the state of Queensland (we were in New South Wales) so we didn’t bother to stand in the short line to get a photo merely petting a koala. I would later regret that decision but more on that in a future post.

Koalas are endangered; there are currently estimated to be only 43,000-80,000 koalas left in Australia due to loss of habitat. The koala eats eucalyptus leaves and while there are 700 varieties of the plant in Australia, the koala eats only 60 of them. Efforts are underway to try to save and restore the habitat to ensure the survival of this adorable marsupial.

A couple from our group with a koala

Lori and I took turns taking photos of one another petting the kangaroos that roamed freely around the park.

Lori and a roo
Me and my roo

The park charges a fee to take photos of dingos but I captured this one as one of the staff walked it through.

Dingo at Featherdale Wildlife Park

These adorable little penguins are native to Australia and we enjoyed watching them clamor for food at feeding time.

Feeding time at the zoo

The echidna, also known as the spiny anteater, is native only to Australia and New Guinea. They and the platypus are the only mammals to lay eggs.

Echidna

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Following our visit at Featherdale Wildlife Park, Kunal delivered us to the marina on the Parramatta River where our ride soon arrived to deliver us back to Circular Quay.

Kunal and Jim

It was a long, sweltering, exhausting, but satisfying day.

 

Based on events from February 2019.

Categories: Australia, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Down Under on the HO HO to Bondi

After our visit to Manly Beach, we were keen to see Bondi Beach in Sydney to compare the two. We decided the best way to make the 7 km trip from the Rocks to Bondi would be the Hop On Hop Off Bus, aka the HO HO Bus or the Big Bus Sydney. The $55 AUD ($38.50 USD) ticket for one day was pricey but we thought it was an efficient way to travel throughout the city and see all the highlights. We hadn’t yet ventured outside our neighborhood in the Rocks and the HO HO would rectify that situation. The map below shows the routes for the HO HO Bus with white circles at stop 1 where we boarded the bus and our destination at Bondi Beach.

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Map of HO HO Bus route

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Riding the HO HO Bus in Sydney CBD

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Sydney Tower Eye

To change from the red to the blue line, we got off the bus at stop 3. Spotting St. Mary’s Cathedral nearby, we decided to have a look before the next bus.

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St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

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Interior of St. Mary’s Cathedral

Back on the bus, we listened to the narration about landmarks such as Victoria Barracks and Centennial Park until we “hopped off” at the stop for Bondi Beach on Campbell Parade, just a short walk to the beach.

Bondi, pronounced bond-eye, is an aboriginal word which means “water breaking over rocks” or “noise of water breaking over rocks.” The crescent-shaped beach is 1km (.62 mi) long and the largest beach in the Sydney area, attracting as many as 40,000 visitors on the hottest days in summer.

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Bondi from the boardwalk

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Bondi Beach

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Bondi Beach

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View of Bondi Pavillion from the beach

After a brief exploration of the Bondi Pavillion, we removed our shoes to walk through the sand and dip our toes in the warm water of the South Pacific.

So, how did Bondi stack up against Manly Beach? If you’re looking for a wide sandy beach with a broad boardwalk from which to enjoy the beach scene, Bondi is for you. On the other hand, if you prefer picturesque views with shade offered by pine trees surrounding the beach, you’ll choose Manly. (If you missed it, you can read my Manly Beach post here.) Both offer coastal walks through the area and plenty of shops and restaurants. I’m told surfers prefer the bigger waves at Bondi, but we watched surfers at both. In the end, Manly got my vote but, if you have the time, definitely visit both.

Back on the bus, we enjoyed views of the city skyline from Dudley Page Reserve in Dover Heights, an eastern suburb of Sydney. Many tourists flock here to photograph the city from this vantage point.

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View of the skyline from Dudley Page Reserve

Soon after we transferred from the blue line back to the red line at the Central Railway Station, we spied one of the most striking buildings at One Central Park, in the suburb of Chippendale. The tallest vertical garden in the world, this 34 story residential building with 623 apartments was completed in 2013, winning an international award the following year for the best tall building in the world.

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One Central Park

We got off the bus again at stop 14 for the Sydney Fish Market at Blackwattle Bay. The largest working fish market in the Southern Hemisphere, the SFM supplies and promotes sustainable seafood,  trading over 13,500 tons of fish annually. We wandered around the area looking at fish we had never seen before and watching tourists eat local seafood prepared onsite.

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Sydney Fish Market

Frankly, we were out of our element and not everyone in my group enthusiastically embraced the idea of eating local seafood at the Sydney Fish Market so instead we had lunch at a nearby pub, the Dunkirk.

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Lunch at The Dunkirk

Following a leisurely lunch, we boarded the HO HO again to finish the route. We passed through the Darling Harbor area, China Town, and Dawes Point before ending our tour where we began in the Rocks.

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Darling Harbor

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Darling Harbor

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Dawes Point

Day 3 in Sydney ended satisfactorily at Lord Nelson, another pub just around the corner from our condo where we enjoyed a cold brew and discussed all we’d discovered on our tour of the city.

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Scenes from the Lord Nelson

 

Based on events from February 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Australia, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Down Under at the Coathanger

Day 3 of our visit in Sydney dawned sunny and hot, a perfect morning for an early walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, affectionately called the coathanger due to its arched shape. We had walked past the Argyle Stairs on Argyle Street many times in our short stay in Sydney but we hadn’t climbed them previously. Knowing the Cahill Expressway which crosses the bridge was above us, however, up we went.

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Looking back down the Argyle Stairs

At the top of the 174 stairs, we found ourselves on Cumberland Street. After looking about, we discovered the Bridge Stairs sign across the street partially obscured by a tree. When we saw the elevator, we decided to skip the stairs and take the elevator for the experience. At the top, we had clearly arrived at our intended destination.

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Bridge Stairs

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Elevator to Sydney Harbour Bridge

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Jim, Rick, and Lori riding the elevator

The largest steel arch bridge in the world, Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 following nearly 9 years of construction, the labor of 1400 men including the deaths of 16, and a cost of $4.2 million. The four pylons at either end of the bridge provide no support; they are strictly aesthetic to make the bridge look solid. The Pylon Lookout Museum, located in one of the pylons, costs $15 AUD to visit and opens at 10:00 a.m., promising great views from the open-air lookout at the top.

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We arrived too early for the museum and decided to content ourselves with a free walk of a little more than 1 km (.75 mi.) to the other side and many photographs along the way. Jim still regrets not doing the bridge climb but with costs ranging from $174 to $388 AUD per person, the free walk with spectacular views was good enough for me.

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View from Sydney Harbour Bridge

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Sydney Opera House from Harbour Bridge

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Another view from the bridge

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Today, the bridge maintains 7 vehicle lanes, one 24-hour bus lane, 2 train lines, a bicycle lane, and a pedestrian walkway. When traffic utilizing the bridge grew to unmanageable proportions, a 2.3 km tunnel was completed in 1992 to accommodate southbound traffic only. More than 160,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day and 85,000 vehicles use the tunnel. Tolls range from $2.50 to $4.00 depending on the time of day resulting in a pretty good source of revenue.

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Jim on the pedestrian lane next to lanes of traffic on the bridge

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View of a train line on the bridge

Below is a short video to give you the feel of walking the bridge with a few more views as we approach the pylons on the North Shore. (Starring Lori and Rick.)

After walking across the bridge and back, we headed to the Tourist Information office to purchase tickets for the Hop On Hop Off Bus but that’s my next post so check back to read about it.

 

Based on events from February 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Australia, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Down Under at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

You may think a trip to Manly Beach, lunch at the Fortune of War, and a tour of the iconic Sydney Opera House was enough for day 2 in Sydney but we weren’t finished yet. The opera house is adjacent to the Royal Botanic Garden so following our visit to the opera house, we headed that direction entering the garden through the Queen Elizabeth II Gate.

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Queen Elizabeth II Gate

As we entered the gate, I inquired, “What’s a bittame?” and Jim responded derisively, “Laura, that’s BITE ME!” It never occurred to me they would actually display a pejorative command in a proper garden but we’ve laughed over my naiveté several times since.

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Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

According to the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, the Royal Botanic Garden is a 72 acre (29 hectares) haven surrounded by 126 acres (51 hectares) of open parkland called the Domain. Located between the CBD (Central Business District) and the harbor, the garden was established in 1816 but wasn’t designated royal until 1959. Admission is free and the garden welcomes over 3 million visitors each year. We strolled the paved trail hugging the coast of Farmers Cove for about a mile (1.3km) to Mrs. MacQuarie’s Chair. Many trails lead off to other areas of the park, as you can see on the map below but, with limited time, we confined our exploration to the foreshore promenade. (Our route is marked in red below.)

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Along the way, we paused frequently to read markers identifying various plants and to enjoy the spectacular views of Sydney Harbor.

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Mrs. MacQuarie’s Chair was named for the wife of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales from 1810-1821. Mrs. MacQuarie loved to walk out to the point to enjoy views of the harbor so her husband had a bench carved from sandstone rock to provide her with a resting spot. The inscription carved into the rock says, “Be it thus recorded that the road, round the inside of the Government Domain called, Mrs. Macquarie’s Road, so named by the Governor on account of her having originally, planned it, Measuring 3 miles and 377 yards, was finally completed on the 13th day of June 1816.”

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Mrs. MacQuarie’s Point

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Mrs. MacQuarie’s Chair

By happenstance, we discovered St. George OpenAir Cinema on our walk to the point. The movie that evening was a premiere screening of Everybody Knows, starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. People were lined up for blocks for the gate opening at 6:15. After an action-packed day of sight-seeing, we didn’t feel like waiting until 8:30 for a movie with subtitles. I wished we could have seen Mary Queen of Scots on February 13 but, alas, our cruise departed that day. Other movies during our stay included Bohemian Rhapsody and Instant Family, both movies I’d already seen.

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St. George OpenAir Cinema

This venue operates during the summer months and offers grandstand seating and food and drink including alcohol at tables before the show. We saw many people with coolers and learned you can bring your own food and drink but no alcohol. You may eat your food in the grandstand but the venue tables are reserved for customers purchasing food and/or drink.

The screen is raised over the water for shows and lowered when not in use. The red arrow on the photo below points to the lowered screen. When I return to Sydney, this experience is definitely on my list.

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As we retraced our steps to our condo, Jim stopped briefly on Argyle Street where the Sydney Markets were closing up and snagged some free samples of kangaroo, wild boar, crocodile, and emu. Tired after a long day, we prepared a light supper before getting to bed early. Join us next time for our first activity on day 3 in Sydney — a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

 

Based on events in February 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Down Under at the Sydney Opera House

Following a leisurely lunch at Fortune of War on day 2 in Sydney, it was time to see the Sydney Opera House up close. As we strolled toward the opera house along Circular Quay, we enjoyed more of the giant lanterns for the Sydney Lunar Festival celebrating the Chinese New Year.

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The weather was hot but the people sitting outside at Opera Bar pictured below seemed to be enjoying the live music, a cold drink, and the outdoor mist cooling system. I’ve seen outdoor heaters but not coolers and I was immediately a fan in 90F+ (32C+) temperatures!

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Outdoor beer garden at Opera Bar

I had no idea of the drama surrounding the construction of the Sydney Opera House until we went on the tour. We hadn’t planned to take the $40 tour because you can wander around the facility on your own for free. Instead, we wanted to attend a performance at the opera house, but, unfortunately, nothing scheduled during our visit appealed to us. So, in the end, we decided to take the tour to get the back story. This is some of what we heard and saw.

The Sydney Opera House is located on Bennelong Point which was originally called Tubowgule by the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. Tubowgule means “where the knowledge waters meet” and the site was considered a sacred meeting place by the Aboriginals. In the 1950s, this site was selected as the location for the new opera house.

Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s design was chosen from 233 proposals following an international contest that paid £5000 for the winning design. Construction began in 1959 under the guidance of Utzon, with an estimate of 4 years to complete the project at a cost of $7 million. In the end, it cost $102 million and took 14 years to complete. Engineering challenges dogged the project. First, the ground where the building would be erected was unstable and the solution busted the budget early on. Second, the shell-shaped roof went through several iterations until a structurally sound design was found.

Finally, in 1966, delays and costs strained the relationship between Utzon and the government to the point that Utzon threatened to quit and his resignation was accepted. Although Utzon believed the opera house could not be completed without him, it was. He would never return to see the magnificent result of his work.

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The pink sculpture is a lunar lantern celebrating the Chinese New Year and the year of the pig

With seven performance venues in the Sydney Opera House, the Concert Hall, the Joan Sutherland Theater, Drama Theater, Playhouse, the Studio, the Utzon Room, and the Forecourt, over 2000 performances occur each year. Photography inside the performance venues is allowed only when no sets or performers are present so I purchased the souvenir book which includes the same photo of Jim and me superimposed over various photos of the opera house.

The Concert Hall is the largest venue with seating for 2679 guests. The mechanical action organ with 10,154 pipes is the largest in the world and only one person in the world can tune it. I thought they needed to engage in succession planning pretty quickly. This is the venue where Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final body-building contest in 1980. Luckily, we were allowed to photograph inside.

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The Concert Hall

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Our souvenir photo inside The Concert Hall

The Joan Sutherland Theater, seating 1507 guests, was renamed in 2012 for the famous Australian soprano who died in 2010. After a live chicken landed on a cellist during the opera, Boris Godunov, in the 1980s, today, a net covers the 70 musician orchestra pit. Due to an innovative design, sets and props are stored below the stage rather than in the wings and are moved into place by mechanical lifts.

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Joan Sutherland portrait outside the eponymous theater

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Inside the Joan Sutherland Theater

The Drama Theatre, The Playhouse, and The Studio are smaller venues accommodating 544, 398, and 300 guests, respectively. These venues are used for theatrical performances, dance, and even circus acts. The Utzon Room is the only interior space designed by the architect before he left the project. Seating only 200 guests, the intimate space is used often for chamber music performances. Finally, the Forecourt is an outdoor plaza in front of the opera house that is the largest venue with a capacity of 6000.

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Forecourt of Sydney Opera House

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Forecourt of Sydney Opera House

The interior spaces outside the performance venues were also impressive and the views through 6223 square meters of glass were spectacular.   IMG_5685IMG_5689IMG_5690IMG_5720

One million sixty-six thousand six roof tiles cover the exterior of the sails (roof). Although the opera house looks white, the tiles are actually off-white because white would be blinding. You can see a closer view below.

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Exterior close-up view of Sydney Opera House roof

The Sydney Opera House is such an extraordinary architectural masterpiece, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. Currently, the opera house receives over 8 million visitors each year and after our visit, I understand why.

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Based on events from February 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Australia, History, Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Down Under at Manly Beach

We planned to take the ferry to Manly Beach on Sunday morning, killing two birds with one stone. The ferry would provide us with a highly recommended harbor tour in addition to transporting us to the famed beach suburb of Sydney. The advantage of going Sunday is the price for the ferry is just $2.50 on Sundays although the crowds are definitely thicker.

When we arrived at Wharf 5 on Circular Quay, we asked where to purchase tickets and we were directed to the ticket machines inside the nearby train station. Unfortunately, we neglected to inquire how to get a discounted ticket and paid full price for a single use roundtrip ticket. We later found out we needed to buy an Opal card to take advantage of the discount. We made no mistake by getting an early start, however. We beat the crowds and walked right onto the ferry and found a seat for the 30-minute scenic ride. (You can take the fast ferry which arrives in just 18 minutes but we preferred the leisurely ride.)

Sydney Harbor is a tourist attraction in and of itself. The largest natural harbor in the world, Sydney Harbor attracts boaters, kayakers, divers, recreational fisherman, and over 350 cruise ships each year.

The views from the ferry provided a new perspective of Australia’s largest city. The skyline of the CBD (central business district) was especially impressive and the views of the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, and the Royal Botanic Garden delighted us as well.

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Sydney from the harbor

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Sydney Opera House

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Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge

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Jim with the Royal Botanic Garden in the background

I love lighthouses and the Hornby Lighthouse is a red and white striped charmer. Constructed in 1858, the lighthouse is located in Sydney Harbour National Park with many hiking trails through the bushland. With more time, a visit would likely have been on my list.

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Hornby Lighthouse

As we approached Manly Cove, we noted many pleasure craft, an indication it’s a popular spot for boaters, too.

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Manly Cove

Our ferry pulled up to the Manly Wharf and we followed the stream of foot traffic off the boat and along the Manly Corso, a pedestrian street connecting the wharf to the beach. Originally built as a boardwalk and named for the Via del Corso in Rome, the street is filled with shops and restaurants.

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Manly Wharf

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Manly Corso

The beach is lined with pine trees and picnic tables in the shade for those, like us, who want to avoid sunburn.

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Jim and Lori

Plenty of sun worshippers had already staked out their spots on the beach, however.

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Manly Beach

The Spit Bridge to Manly Walk, one of the many stunning coastal walks around Sydney, ends at the Manly Wharf. But instead, we strolled along the Manly Parade which follows the coast from Manly Beach to Shelly Beach. We didn’t go as far as Shelly Beach but we enjoyed some stunning views, nonetheless.

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Jim and Lori on the Manly Parade

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Manly Beach from the Manly Parade

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View from the Manly Parade

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Return stroll on the Manly Parade

Although we only went into the water up to our ankles, we were wet to our waists just after the photos below when a wave drenched us.  We also enjoyed watching those surfers riding the waves behind us.

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Jim and me

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By early afternoon we were ready to take the return ferry to Circular Quay. As I took a photo of a sister ferry passing the Harbour Bridge, we noticed the line of people on top who had climbed the bridge. I’ve enlarged the second photo below so you can see them better. It’s the one regret Jim has from this trip. He decided not to do the climb and has regretted it ever since. The views are incredible from up there but you can’t take anything including cameras with you. Since I’m guilty of thinking it doesn’t happen unless it’s recorded on Instagram, I was content to walk the bridge and I’ll share those photos later. We may have to go back for Jim to do the climb, however.

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One of the ferries on Sydney Harbor

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Back in Sydney, it was time to try another pub. Fortune of War, established in 1828, is Sydney’s oldest pub. With live music in the middle of the afternoon, customers seeking a pint, or a late lunch, or both, packed the place and we gladly joined them.

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Rick, Lori, and Jim outside Fortune of War (Note wisdom on the chalkboard)

We had plenty more planned for day 2 in Sydney so come back and tour the Sydney Opera House with us.

 

Based on events from February 2019.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Australia, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Day 1 Down Under

As we sat in the airport waiting to board our 2 pm flight on Thursday, February 7, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa, our friend Rick remarked, “I feel like we’ve been traveling 24 hours and we haven’t even left yet.” Twenty-seven hours later, we arrived in Sydney, Australia at 9 am on Saturday. None of us slept well in our economy seats on the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles but honestly, I found it was easier than an 8-hour flight to Europe. It was long enough that we had to sleep at least a little.

After immigration (don’t forget to get your visa for Australia on-line before you go) and customs, we stopped at an ATM to get some Aussie dollars, then found a taxi to take us to our Airbnb in the historic neighborhood of The Rocks. With four of us, a taxi was less expensive than public transportation but when it’s just Jim and me, public transportation is usually cheaper for just two. We couldn’t check in until later in the afternoon but we’d arranged to leave our luggage at the townhouse while we explored the area. Celebrating the warm weather, we also managed to change into shorts before we set out.

Feeling jet-lagged after our long journey, we wanted to take it easy the first day and stay awake until a normal bedtime to reset our circadian rhythms to our new time zone. (Or at least, that was my plan.)

Research told me the first inhabitants of The Rocks were the indigenous Gadigal people of the Eora Nation who called the area Tallawodahla. The British established a penal colony in the 18th century and the convicts called the area The Rocks after the rocky sandstone they found. Historic buildings in The Rocks have been preserved or restored and today are occupied by restaurants and shops.  On Saturdays and Sundays, The Rocks Markets, where local artisans sell their products, operate from 10-5 so we wandered that direction to check it out.

On the map below, Windmill Street, where our condo was located, is circled in red and the area of the markets is the red marker. The Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera are underlined in red to show how convenient our location was to those attractions, too.

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The Rocks, the oldest area of Sydney

We easily found the markets but when we spied a pub with outdoor seating, none of us could resist a brief respite.

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Argyle Street in The Rocks with tents from the Markets behind us

Pubs quickly became our choice for meals, offering good authentic Australian cuisine at a reasonable price.  I’d read about iconic Australian foods including Vegemite, meat pies, prawns (shrimp to us), barramundi, fish and chips, bbq, avocado toast, fairy bread, beetroot, and kangaroo, to name a few, and I was keen to taste most of them. I’ve had Vegemite before and I’m not a fan so I quickly scratched that from the list. Jim’s kangaroo sausage pictured above tasted like any sausage but it was a tasty snack.

Refreshed, we sauntered on to continue our first look at the neighborhood.

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The Markets at the Rocks, Sydney

Fortunately, our arrival coincided with the Sydney Lunar Festival celebrating the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Pig. All the Chinese zodiac animals were represented by lunar lanterns located around Circular Quay but on our first walk-through, I got photos of the spiral pig and the snake. We also noted this convenient location was where we would board our cruise ship several days later.

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Spiral pig lantern (note flying pigs on top)

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Close-up of pigs

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Snake lantern

Although Jim and I were in Sydney two years previously, our first views of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House were just as captivating this time.

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Sydney Harbour Bridge

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Sydney Opera House

Campbell’s Storehouses, constructed in the 19th century, line Campbell’s Wharf and house up-scale restaurants and shops.

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Campbell’s Storehouses

The ASN Warehouse, built of sandstone and brick, is another 19th-century building that brings history to life in the area.

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ASN Warehouse, The Rocks

A replica of an Aboriginal pictograph showed recognition of and respect for the Aboriginal community. Many shops in the area sell authentic Aboriginal crafts such as the didgeridoo, a wind instrument created by termites hollowing out a eucalyptus branch. (In my imagination, I picture factories around Australia crawling with termites working hard to ready the eucalyptus.)

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Didgeridoos sold in a local shop in The Rocks

By 3 pm, check-in time at our condo, we were all ready to return. After a little unpacking and settling in, the guys ended up succumbing to temptation and slept in spite of my warning.

Following their naps, we checked out my brother and sister-in-law’s favorite pub for dinner, The Hero of Waterloo.

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Who would sit indoors with this weather?

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The interior of every pub was quaint and historic

The sandwiches on the menu all came with chips which in Aussie English are french fries. What we call chips, they call crisps. Lesson learned.

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My sister-in-law recommended the potato wedges with chili and sour cream which I ordered and they were delicious. With Jim’s chips, however, we were heavy on potatoes.

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Potato wedges

But Rick’s Chilli Lime Prawns took the prize for the best meal of the night. I’m still drooling over them looking at the photo!

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Chilli Prawns (their spelling, not mine)

Following a leisurely meal, Lori and I decided to walk to Cole’s, the nearest supermarket about 1 km away. After a few directional challenges in spite of Google maps on my iPhone, we found the spot on the map but saw no store and no signs. When we asked pedestrians in the area, they directed us through a building and down to a lower level. We never would have figured it out without help but throughout our holiday, we had the same experience several more times. Travel is so educational for these Iowa country bumpkins.

We planned to take the ferry to Manly Beach the next morning so it was early to bed but please come back and join us for another fun-filled day down under.

 

 

Based on events from February 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Planning to Cruise Australia

Our visit to Australia in 2017 was cut short (you can read about it here) and I’ve been watching ever since for a repeat offer of that cruise itinerary.  If you look at cruises of Australia, you’ll notice most itineraries include many ports in New Zealand and very few in Australia. Because Australia is such a large country and I wanted to see more than just one city, I always thought a cruise would be an efficient way to maximize our time and see more. Our 19-day cruise in 2017 began in Auckland, New Zealand with a stop in Bay of Islands before heading to Australia with stops in 6 cities along the eastern and northern coasts, followed by stops in Indonesia and Malaysia and ending in Singapore.

The itinerary now offered by Norwegian Cruise Line has changed somewhat. The cruise no longer begins in New Zealand which we visited during our 2017 cruise so that was fine with us. Malaysia is replaced by Semarang, Indonesia, on the itinerary which was a disappointment to me (and an even bigger disappointment when we saw Semarang but more on that in a future post.) This was the itinerary:

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I booked the cruise on April 27, 2018, when the price was $6352.80 for an ocean view cabin for my husband and me. In 2017, we paid just under $5000 so the price seemed a little high but I knew if the price came down, I could rebook. I checked periodically and finally in August, the price went down to $5834.36. Then September 1, the price went down to $5134.36 and finally toward the end of September it hit $4187.20. Each time I rebooked at the new price keeping the same cabin and our original amenities which included free internet minutes and a $50 credit per person for a shore excursion at each port. If you haven’t done this before, you call the cruise line and say, “I see the price for my cruise has gone down. Can you help me rebook at the new price?” Simple but we saved a lot of $$$.

Fortunately, we saved on our cruise fare because I was sure an open jaw airfare to Sydney and back from Singapore would be expensive. I decided to check on a multi-city fare with a 3 day stop in Tokyo to visit our friend, Tomo. (More on Tomo later, too.) I could hardly believe my good fortune when I found this itinerary on Delta for the rock bottom price of $1246.43 each. Tip: When you see a good price, don’t hesitate; book it because it probably won’t be there long!

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With cruise and airfare booked, it was time to work on accommodations in Sydney, Singapore, and Tokyo.

Sidenote: Many people have asked me whether I use a travel agent for my trips. I research and book everything myself. I enjoy the planning part of my travels nearly as much as the travel and I have a vested interest in finding the best deals.

My brother and his wife visited Sydney in 2018 so I asked them whether they would recommend their Airbnb accommodations. They heartily endorsed the three-bedroom condo located in Miller’s Point in the heart of “The Rocks” but cautioned us there wasn’t aircon. They were there in April in the middle of a heatwave but we thought a heatwave in February was unlikely and the location just couldn’t be beaten. It was pricey but we were traveling with friends and hoped a third couple would join us to share the cost. In the end, it was just the two couples but we were all glad we stayed there in spite of temperatures in the 90s, no screens on the windows with resulting mosquito bites, and a cost of $442 per night.

 

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Jim, Rick, and Lori outside our Airbnb in Sydney

Next, I looked at hotels in Singapore. In 2017 I reserved a room at the Holiday Inn Express but had to cancel it when our trip ended at Sydney. I couldn’t find a better price including breakfast in a better location so, against my better judgment, I booked it again. I usually avoid staying at American chains when traveling abroad, preferring to experience local culture and accommodations instead. This hotel was gorgeous and you’ll see more of it in future posts.

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Interior of Holiday Inn Express, Singapore

Finally, I researched Tokyo lodging. Tomo was staying with us in the US at the time so I had his guidance in selecting a hotel. In spite of that, when he looked at the hotel I booked he said the hotel I selected was in the area where Japanese mafia or yakuza could be found. Sure enough, I read reviews indicating the red light district was nearby! He directed me to another area where we enjoyed the Mitsui Garden Hotel immensely.

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Mitsui Garden Hotel in Tokyo

In between searches for lodging, Lori and I looked at cruise excursions and quickly decided several were not to be missed–snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, a visit to Komodo Island to see the dragons, and the opportunity to hold a koala. We also scheduled a tour to the Blue Mountains from Sydney. We decided we would schedule any other tours or excursions as we went.

Last but not least, I attacked the challenge of packing for a month in a carry-on suitcase. Fortunately, we had laundry facilities at our condo in Sydney and our platinum status with NCL provided us with laundry service onboard but careful selection was important, nevertheless. When I mentioned my packing issues to Lori, she said, “You did a packing post before this cruise two years ago. Why don’t you just look at that?” You can see that post here. When I looked at it, I discovered I had selected almost the same clothes this time around! But this time, I decided a month-long journey required more than 3 ounces of shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, and sunscreen so I decided to buy those items in Sydney.

We were ready. But of course, any time you plan to travel in Iowa in February, you have weather issues and this trip was no exception. Two days before our departure, we received an email warning us of impending weather issues that could affect our flights. I spent some time researching options and in the end, we decided to travel to Des Moines a day early and let the chips fall where they may. After a nightmarish drive through ice and snow to Des Moines, our flights the following day were unaffected.

Come back next time for our arrival in Sydney.

 

Based on events in February 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: cruise, open jaw, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Amsterdam Revisited

In November 2017, our Viking River Cruise of the Rhine ended in Amsterdam so we scheduled two days in the city before our return flight to the U.S. Although we’ve visited Amsterdam several times previously and we’ve seen most of the top tourist sights, it was time to revisit some favorites and add a couple of new experiences, too.

The ship docked within walking distance of Amsterdam Centraal Train Station and we headed there first to orient ourselves for the walk to our accommodations at Swissotel just a half mile down Damrak.

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Amsterdam Centraal Train Station

Although it was too early to check into our hotel, we left our bags there and ventured out to explore the area before our scheduled 1 p.m. tour at the Anne Frank House.

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Our hotel

Our hotel was next to Dam Square where the Royal Palace of Amsterdam is located. Originally built in the 17th century as the town hall of Amsterdam, it was converted to a palace for Napolean’s brother, Louis Bonaparte, who was named King of the Netherlands and lived there for 5 years beginning in 1808. Since the departure of the French, it has been used by the Dutch Royal Family for royal receptions and ceremonies. Today, it is one of three palaces used by the royal family and is normally open to the public. We didn’t have time this trip but I’d be interested in a tour next time.

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Royal Palace of Amsterdam

We walked back to the Amsterdam Tourist Office located right outside Amsterdam Centraal Train Station to purchase our GVB multiday ticket which allowed us unlimited use of public transportation by bus, tram, and metro during our stay.

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Tourist Information

We checked back at the hotel and we were able to deposit our luggage in our room prior to setting off for the Anne Frank House. We arrived early for our tour and rather than stand in line with our pre-purchased tickets, we elected to explore the area a bit and take some photos. As you can see below, both canals and bicycles are ubiquitous in Amsterdam!

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Canal in Amsterdam

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Bicycles galore!

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Another beautiful canal

I’ve toured the Anne Frank House twice before and each visit was busier than the previous one. It’s amazing that nearly 1.3 million people from all over the world visit the museum each year. Anne’s life and her diary have made an enormous impact in our world and the continued interest gives me hope for humanity.

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Anne Frank House

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The bookcase that hid the doorway into the secret annex

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Pictures on the wall of Anne and Margot’s room encased in glass to protect them

After our tour, we wandered some more, finally returning to our hotel as the sun was setting where I got this photo of Amsterdam rooftops.

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Sunset in Amsterdam

After a brief respite, we were off again to meet our friend, Iris, at the train station for dinner together. Iris, who is Dutch and now lives in Amsterdam, lived with us in Iowa while she volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. We were excited to see her again and hear what she’d been up to during the intervening year. She led us off on a new experience, taking the free ferry across the IJ river to North Amsterdam, where we walked a short distance to THT Restaurant. THT specializes in small plates to share and we ordered an abundance of tasty dishes which we devoured while we talked world politics and our lives since the U.S. presidential election.

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Jim and I with Iris at THT

The next morning we took the tram to the Van Gogh Museum where we had pre-purchased tickets. We arrived before the museum opened so we found a charming cafe, Small Talk Coffee Corner, where we enjoyed coffee and breakfast.

 

The Van Gogh Museum is an amazing facility housing the largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s work, including 200 paintings and 400 drawings, as well as 700 of his letters. Photographs are not allowed of the artwork but you can see his complete works on this website. The tragic life story of Vincent Van Gogh is every bit as fascinating as his art and the museum tells the story well.

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View from inside Van Gogh Museum

Another tram ride took us to the Dutch Resistance Museum, dedicated to the courageous Dutch citizens who risked their lives to resist the Nazis who occupied their country from May 1940 until May 1945 during WWII. It was our first visit to this remarkable museum. I especially appreciated the exhibit about the 1300 illegal newspapers which operated to ensure people were informed about what was really going on rather than relying on propaganda issued by the Germans. The papers also encouraged resistance and helped to maintain Dutch morale. If you ever doubted the importance of a free press, see this museum.

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Dutch Resistance Museum

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Printing press

The only criticism I had of this museum was the lighting wasn’t sufficient for old eyes. I wanted to read everything and it was sometimes hard to see the print due to the lighting.

After the museum, we stopped by a small restaurant nearby for some poffertjes, a small Dutch pancake made with buckwheat flour and adorned with butter and powdered sugar. My sister-in-law, who is of Dutch heritage, introduced us to poffertjes and we’re big fams.

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As we continued to wander, I captured some images of interesting architecture and neighborhoods.

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Oude Kerk

The sight below definitely caught my interest, mostly because I wondered if there was an option for women or if this was strictly designed for males.

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Street relief

And of course, the most gorgeous photos include the canals.

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Another Canal in Amsterdam

When we reached the red light district, I had my I-phone in my hand and while I wasn’t taking photos, I had several women pull their curtains across their windows or mouth obscenities to me.

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The message is loud and clear

While in the red light district, we happened upon Bulldog No. 90, the first coffee shop in Amsterdam. When the shop opened in 1975, visitors surreptitiously smoked marijuana on the premises. Today, if you’re at least 18 years old, pot-smoking is legal in coffee shops all over the city. We didn’t go inside.

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Bulldog No. 90

The Dutch are also known for their cheese and we needed some cheese for a wine and cheese event on a canal cruise we’d arranged that evening with two couples from our cruise. Gouda is my Dutch favorite.

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Cheese shop

As we headed to our canal tour that evening, we noticed that even though it was early November, the Christmas decorations were up and the lights were lit in Amsterdam.

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Christmas decorations in Amsterdam

The lights from the canal tour were spectacular although, honestly, I prefer a daytime tour in spite of the wine and cheese.

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There’s plenty more to see and do in Amsterdam but it was time for us to return to the United States until the next time.

 

 

Based on events from November 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: cruise, Europe, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saying Goodbye to the Viking Kara

We arrived in Amsterdam on day 8 of our Viking River Cruise of the Rhine. My blog posts for this trip have focused mostly on the ports of call and excursions we enjoyed along the way. But before I tell you about Amsterdam, our final port of call, I want to share some photos of ship life on the Viking Kara. Spoiler alert! For those of you who dislike food photos, this post isn’t for you.

Our cabin was small but comfortable. We chose a room on the first deck at water level since it was the least expensive and we thought it would be too chilly to use a veranda in November anyway. If you’re sensitive to noise, I must caution against this option, however, as we could often hear the engine noise. It didn’t bother us too much and the money saved was welcome.

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Our first dinner onboard Elvia and Geoff were seated with us for dinner and we enjoyed one another’s company so much, they had dinner with us every evening thereafter and often we had breakfast and lunch together, too.

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Elvia, Lori, Heather, Jim, and Geoff

The food was beautifully presented, well-prepared, and delicious. One evening even featured traditional German dishes with entertainment.

 

The service in the dining room and throughout the ship was superior.

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We enjoyed the onboard entertainment including traditional German and French selections as well as the pianist. We were usually the last to leave the dance floor in the evening although it was only 11:00.

 

Our cruise director, Ria, was knowledgeable and entertaining. We felt fortunate to have enjoyed her expertise on her last cruise with Viking. As a new mom, I think the time away from home was too difficult. Even though we’ve been to Amsterdam numerous times, she gave us excellent advice about the city which we hadn’t heard previously.

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This was our second river cruise with Viking and we thoroughly enjoyed our 8 days cruising the Rhine River. When we finished our excursions to the French and German countryside each day, we appreciated returning to our welcoming and comfortable ship where we relaxed, recharged, and readied ourselves for more explorations.

 

We’ll definitely look for more itineraries with this line in the future.

 

Based on events from November 2017.

Categories: cruise, Europe, Food, France, Germany, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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